No one can blame Morgan Tsvangirai for withdrawing from Friday's run-off in Zimbabwe's presidential election. Least of all can he be accused of lacking personal courage. He returned to Zimbabwe to campaign, despite ample evidence that rigging had deprived him of a clear victory in the first round and very real threats to his life.
And yesterday's move has two clear benefits. It deprives Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF of the legitimacy that would proceed from a victory at the ballot-box, however compromised such a victory would be. There must also be hope that it will halt the mounting violence. Without the opposition Movement for Democratic Change formally contesting his power, Mr Mugabe can afford to call off the militias. Many lives may thus have been saved.
However understandable Mr Tsvangirai's decision, though, it still leaves a bitter taste. In principle, a flawed election is generally preferable to no election at all. Those who campaigned for the MDC, even those who supported the party clandestinely, were immensely brave. In the same spirit, many were expected to risk going to vote on Friday. There were forecasts – born of wishful thinking, perhaps – that Mr Mugabe could be defeated. Now, opposition supporters will have no one to vote for and there will be no election. Mr Mugabe's catastrophic rule is automatically extended.
An opportunity has been lost. It would be wrong, however, to see the abandoned run-off as returning Zimbabwe to where it was before the elections in March. More has changed than might meet the eye. Mr Mugabe retains the presidency, but he no longer has a monopoly on power. The parliamentary elections, also held in March, deprived Zanu-PF of its majority. Despite challenges and accusations of rigging from both sides, these results were allowed to stand. The MDC has a platform from which to challenge the status quo.
Then there is the judiciary. Even as the Mugabe regime's campaign of violence and intimidation reached its height in the past week, Zimbabwe's high court struck down the ban on opposition rallies. This did not immediately change the balance of forces on the ground: when the MDC tried to hold a rally in Harare yesterday, its advance guard found that Zanu-PF supporters, armed with sticks and whips, had already occupied the arena. After the court ruling, however, there could be no ifs or buts: this was indisputably an illegal act.
Thirdly, the chequered course of the run-off campaign left few illusions about the nature of the Mugabe government or the methods to which it would resort to stay in power. As documented instances of beatings and killings spiralled, other African governments started to break their silence. Inhibitions against condemning a fellow freedom-fighter remain, but there are signs that the consensus may be shifting. The Harare regime's tactics, along with the deplorable state into which this once-prosperous country has descended, make it harder than ever for neighbours to stand idly by.
If Zimbabwe is not quite back where it was before the previous elections, there are still many questions about what happens next. Among the more hopeful developments after the disputed results in March were the mediation efforts launched by Zimbabwe's neighbours. The now-aborted run-off was one result; talks broaching a possible national unity government were another. With its economy in free-fall, its population fleeing, and an enfeebled Robert Mugabe still in power, Zimbabwe will need all the help it can get. This is the worst time for anyone, least of all its neighbours, to disengage.